Seven teenagers from Puerto Rico started school at Leominster High School this week. The school said they expect more to be coming based on calls they've received from concerned family members trying to get their relatives to Massachusetts.
Despite the full-capacity classes and budget cuts, the high school is vowing to welcome the new students with open arms and make the transition as easy as possible.
"The hurricane — it was awful. It was very awful. You could see people crying. We had to take showers in the rivers and wash clothes in the rivers," said 14-year-old Christian Crespo, who just started school Wednesday with his 16-year-old brother, Andres.
They didn't know when their next meal was coming, Andres said. They lived an hour outside of San Juan with their mother in the mountains.
"It was hard to reach the food because they were in faraway places," Andres explained. "So by the time you got there, there was no more food."
Their father, also named Andres, worried sick after Hurricane Maria hit.
"They called me and said, 'Dad, there's no food,'" the elder Andres said. "That's when it hits you, to know your kids are going hungry and there is no water. You do whatever it takes to get them out."
He tried desperately to get them back to Leominster, where he lives. He said the flight he booked them got canceled three times, but he eventually got a flight through JetBlue.
"I think the hardest part was communication, trying to find out if they were OK or not," he said. "There was sleepless nights just waiting to see if the phone rings. That was the toughest for me."
The father finally got them here less than a week ago, and now the boys are settling in at school.
"The looting in the school that has taken place, and the records that are gone. And resources are gone, computers are gone, and textbooks are all ruined," Leominster High School Vice Principal Steve Dubzinski said. "And they don't think they will reopen school for the rest of this year. So the kids need some place to go."
Leominster High is filled to capacity in the classroom and, like most school systems, endured some big budget cuts, but the teachers are prepared to make it work.
"we are busting at the seems right now. We really are because of the fiscal situation here — but these are American citizens and they are in need," said Liz Blanchflower, the head of the Spanish department.
The school expects quite a few more students because they have a large Puerto Rican community.
"I tell the other students they are so fortunate, despite some of the problems they think they have," said Sandy Cucchiara, the head of the English department. "In comparison, it can’t possibly match what some of these youngsters have seen."
Christian and the younger Andres are glad to call Leominster home, and the school is even happier to have been a part of creating one.
"The transition was phenomenal. The school is awesome. The teacher, the staff, it's just perfect," Andres said. "They are good people. They have treated my brother and I really good."
Leominster High School has alerted their emotional support staff to help kids through this transition period and will take it by a case by case basis.
"We are really lucky to have them," said Dubzinski.
Boston's school district said it has also enrolled a handful of children impacted by the storms in their schools.